Lauren Bacall’s Beginnings (1945) 🇺🇸
That new girl!
When you see Lauren Bacall opposite Humphrey Bogart in “To Have And Have Not,” you’ll want to know all about her; Here’s first, exclusive interview
When Lauren, then Betty Bacall, received a wire from Producer-director Howard Hawks asking her if she wanted a screen test, the tall, wide-shouldered, sun-bleached blonde bought a ticket for California. Rather than wire a “yes” from New York, she decided to make a personal appearance. She’d been disappointed by stage producers, and had decided, that movie producers had the same trouble — absent-mindedness.
It was raining cats and dogs when she alighted at the Union Station in Los Angeles. There was no mayor to greet her, no band to serenade. She couldn’t even find a hotel room. She wound up in a tiny hostelry out in Westwood, and tried to get warm.
Lauren Bacall proved herself smart when she raced westward rather than send a wire saying she’d like a test. Evidence lies in the fact that today, a year and a half later, she has the lead opposite Humphrey Bogart in one of Warner Brothers’ biggest pictures, “To Have And Have Not.”
It is characteristic of Lauren not to wait, but to rush right into the ring and wrestle with opportunity. She has always wanted to be in the movies. She has always wanted to be on the stage, too. She has the talent, the looks and the audacity. You look at her and you decide instantly that she’s an actress. Even at previews she attended before she had appeared in her one and only picture, kids came up and asked for her autograph.
“But, really, I’m not a star!” she protested to two young high school girls who accosted her. “I haven’t been in a picture.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” replied one. “You look like you will be. Besides, we like nice people, anyway.”
Lauren Bacall was very happy about that.
When she arrived at Warner Brothers she was faced with the inevitable. Warners’ artisans wanted to do her over.
“I don’t get it,” she told the writer. “When you go to a store and you buy something, you buy it because you like it and can use it. You don’t take a potato masher home and carve it into a wooden spoon.
“I admit several things. I admit that because I never wear a hat my hair is two-toned. I admit my eyebrows are crooked. My mouth is big. My teeth aren’t too straight. But I was bought for what I was, and I’m going to stay that way. There’ll be no changes.”
She has made one concession. She has dropped plain Betty for Lauren, which is a family name, so it really isn’t much of an alteration, anyway.
At 16, Lauren was hopelessly stage-struck. She had seen every picture in which Bette Davis had appeared. When Bette visited New York, Lauren got the name of the hotel at which she was staying and would go into the lobby and wait for hours. When Bette came in, Lauren would ride up in the elevator with her, never speaking, but worshiping from afar. One day she summoned all her courage and, bringing a girlfriend, called on Bette.
The star was very sympathetic with her ambitions. But then came complete disruption. The girlfriend swooned. Lauren and Bette had quite a time with her and Lauren was very, very embarrassed. Bette and Lauren are on the same lot, now. Lauren, still embarrassed, is trying to summon up nerve to speak!
Lauren always has been with her mother, Natalie. Her parents were separated when she was very young. Mrs. Bacall, a skilled secretary, has always worked, as long as Betty can remember — pardon, Lauren. Mrs. Bacall was disturbed when, while still in private school — Lauren had not yet even enrolled in Julia Richman High School in New York — Lauren expressed a desire to be an actress.
“Being an actress is a very hard job,” her mother told her, “and you’ll have a lot of hard knocks. I’d rather have you try almost anything else, but if your heart is set on it. I’ll help all I can.”
Natalie Bacall kept her word. Lauren, born in New York City on September 16, 1924, was permitted to start modelling when she was 11 years old. While in high school, she became a part-time student at the New York School of the Theater. When she was graduated from high school at the tender age of 15 — she was precocious — she entered the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
“At 15 and 16 I was very awkward,” Lauren relates. “I didn’t stand much chance as a model, but I tried. And in the summers I got jobs as junior counsellor in Connecticut camps. I staged plays and pageants and things like that.”
In 1941, when Betty — we mean Lauren — was 16, she began pounding pavements, as she puts it. She got a job in downtown New York modelling, but at lunch hour she’d rush up to a drug store at 44th St. and Broadway, where down-at-the-heels actors hung about. She’d engage them in conversation.
“Show me Max Gordon.” she’d ask, or “What does George S. Kaufman look like?” or “Where can I see Brock Pemberton or John Golden?”
By persistent questioning and observation she became able to recognize them and other producers and directors. One day, alter hearing that Max Gordon was about to rehearse a road company of My Sister Eileen, she accosted him on the street. Practically dog-trotting be- side him, she panted: “I’m Betty Bacall, Mr. Gordon, and I’m sure that I’d be a real asset to your road company. I’ve had lots of experience, and I’m a very good actress and —”
“We have a reading this afternoon at two,” Gordon replied, smiling at her breathlessly serious manner. “You report.”
Lauren called the clothing company for which she was modelling and told of a sudden, mysterious illness which had overtaken her, and how she must go to the home of a friend and lie down for a few hours. She reported to Gordon at two, was put on the stage, and proceeded to read the lines hanging onto the back of a chair which was practically in the wings.
“Come out into the open, Miss Bacall,” said Gordon. Lauren stuck to her post.
“What else could I do?” she recalls. “I was perspiring, I was shaking so I could hardly hold the script, my knees were wobbling, and if I’d let go of the chair I’d have fallen flat on my face.”
If she had taken the road job, she’d have been out by Christmas, 1941. She had several readings, and also read for George S. Kaufman, Brock Pemberton and John Golden. Then she met Paul Lukas, who was starred in the famed “Watch On The Rhine.” Lukas was very sympathetic, gave her a lot of good advice, one line of which she quotes, verbatim: “The most important thing is sincerity. Don’t try to act. Live what you are doing.” Lukas advised her against going on the road. She might be away from Broadway for a year or two, and your career would be postponed that long.”
Lauren’s career from this point on was very spotty. She got a full taste of rehearsals, road openings, draughty stages, hard work. She won a “walk-on” in Johnny Two-by-Four at $15 per week, and played it for two months, three weeks on the “subway” circuit — meaning New York’s lesser houses and in nearby cities. In 1942, Max Gordon gave her a chance in Franklin Street. Scared to death, she reported in flat shoes and a cotton dress. She wore no make-up and had her hair pulled back tight against her head.
“I was tall and I looked older, and I wasn’t taking any chances,” she explained. For a while Lauren played the part of Adele. Then Kaufman, who was directing, summoned her. “This is it,” she told herself. “I’m going to be fired.” She waited for the blow to fall, only to find that Kaufman wanted her to switch parts with another girl and play the character of Maude.
Franklin Street opened in Wilmington, Delaware, went to Washington. Mrs. Roosevelt attended a performance and Lauren was ah a-dither. But even Mrs. Roosevelt’s generous applause failed to put the piece over and it folded, after about a fortnight. Lauren got $50 per week for this chore, was hopelessly broke when the last curtain fell. She was pretty blue when she got back to New York.
“I’m going to introduce you to the fashion editor of a national magazine,” a gentleman of her acquaintance said. “You’ll get a good break.”
“But I don’t want to model any more,” she protested. “I’m an actress now.”
Nevertheless, she did meet the editor, did pose, did model a blouse, and the caption said “young actress.” It was this picture and this caption that Mrs. Howard Hawks, the wife of the producer-director saw in her home nearly 3,000 miles away, and showed to her husband. “That girl has possibilities,” Mrs. Hawks said.
“I’ll test her,” said Hawks, who is credited with many film discoveries, the latest prior to Lauren being Universal’s Ella Raines.
So Lauren got the telegram and, just as she dashed after Max Gordon she dashed to California, figuring that if she was a bust she’d go right back to New York. She brought her pet golden cocker spaniel, “Droopy,” with her, but left her mother at home, as she didn’t want to waste two round-trip tickets on a wild goose chase.
She waited four weeks for her test. She played a scene from “Claudia.” Hawks invited her to see it.
“I sank lower and lower in my seat,” she said. “I hoped the projection room would swallow me.”
After it was over. Hawks turned to her and asked: “What do you think?”
“I think,” she replied, “that maybe I ought to be a dish-washer.”
Nevertheless, Hawks put her under personal contract. He told her to read everything she could aloud. As months drifted by, she went into the hills above Beverly Hills and read at the top of her voice. She tried Shakespeare, newspapers, poetry and various modern plays. A cruising police car stopped one day, and its occupants asked her what she was doing. “I’m studying,” she said. “I’m an actress.”
The pair shook tolerant heads, went on cruising. They were used to things like that. The studying lasted about five hours each day. Came her six months option and it was lifted. Hawks congratulated her on keeping the pitch of her voice down. She’d expected to be fired. Then she was summoned for her test opposite Bogart for “To Have And Have Not.” Bogart played a fisherman, running free French on the side at Fort du France, Martinique, in 1940. Lauren was cast as a drifter, frank, down-to-earth, stranded in Martinique by lack of funds.
Lauren, unassuming, frank and sincere, was a hit on the sets at once. Bogart went out of his way to coach her, insisted on having lines re-written to improve her part, “stood-in” off-scene in close-ups so that she could look at him and get more out of her lines than if she was addressing empty space.
There was considerable horse-play. Bogart, in playful mood, hand-cuffed her to her dressing room door. Everyone was very kind and solicitous, but nobody unlocked the hand cuffs. She called for a glass of water, pretending thirst, and when Bogart got within range she gave it to him.
Rushes indicate a great find.
Lauren, following Lukas’ sterling advice and her own instincts, is being Lauren Bacall on and off screen. She has sent for her mother, who is now in Hollywood and seeking employment. They live in a modest furnished apartment in Beverly Hills with “Droopy.” Lauren loves the sun, and the streak of light blonde hair which the sun has put in her hair. She loves to swim. She hates night clubs. She says: “If you like someone, you don’t have to go to a night-club to have a good time. If you are so bored with a person that you have to go to a night-club to relieve the monotony you’re not very bright to go out with him.”
Lauren, intent on a career, admits being in love. She says she has been for eight months, that the man is not in motion pictures, not in the services, and is in a profession. Further than this she won’t go. “My career comes first,” she says. “As long as I’m not going to marry right away, let’s be mysterious.”
Lauren believes that her hard knocks have made her a better actress than she might otherwise be, thinks schooling is necessary and recommends college “if you haven’t the ambition to educate yourself.” Bette Davis is still her favorite actress, Paul Lukas her favorite actor, George S. Kaufman her favorite stage director. She is still a bit wide-eyed over the patience of Howard Hawks, and thinks it’s wonderful he should have paid her salary for so long while she was bringing in absolutely nothing. She’s mighty grateful.
Lauren doesn’t own a fur coat, and when she “steps out” she wears a black chesterfield which has a black velvet collar, and which is two years old. The day we talked she was without make-up, wore a tailored beige suit, high-heeled slippers and a chartreuse blouse. She says she likes slacks better, and runs around her apartment in bare feet.
She is glad her mother isn’t the stage door type. Probably her greatest ambition is to own a boat, not a yacht, but the kind you open cans in and just sun yourself. “Droopy” is her best pal, and she confesses that when she gets low she puts a symphony on her phonograph and proceeds to confess all to him. He seems to understand.
Sensational! She’s the tall new blonde who makes you sit up and take notice as Bogart’s screen sweetheart in the Hemingway picture. Top right, facing page, Lauren with Hoagy Carmichael and Walter Brennan.
Turhan Bey and his best girl — his mother.
Collection: Screenland Magazine, January 1945